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Serious R&D effort needed to make 3D printing a reality, says digital fabrication expert

Recent predictions that the global market for 3D printing will exceed £5bn by 2025 could fail to become reality unless the industry invests in new materials development and process control.

That’s the view of Kieron Salter, managing director of KWSP, one of the UK’s new high performance engineering businesses focused on the exploitation of digital fabrication and additive manufacturing.

According to a recent report, 3D Printing 2014-2025: Technologies, Markets, Players, 3D printing has a bright future and will experience exponential growth over the next decade. No longer simply used for one-off pieces and prototypes, additive manufacturing (AM) is now more widely utilised for final part production of items, bringing about simplified assembly, rapid design iterations, mass customisation and minimal material wastage. Subsequently, 3D printing is becoming increasingly deployed in sectors, such as aerospace, medical, military and automotive.

However, such anticipated growth in the 3D printing sector could fail to happen unless further research and development takes place. Quality control, process improvement, materials development and control engineering adoption are key skills that need further investment before digital manufacturing will become a recognised engineering force in the UK, according to Salter.

The most efficient AM/3D printed parts will be designed to be manufactured digitally and companies such as KWSP are already exploiting these benefits in motorsport and high performance engineering sectors. But without consistent investment in R&D, such disruptive technologies are unlikely to realise their full potential.

“While there’s a lot of media coverage given to 3D printing, I don’t think it alone is the most exciting opportunity of the future. It’s part of a much bigger movement of digital fabrication that utilises a range of technologies including 3D printing, industrial inkjet and material deposition, combined with new developments in functional materials,” said Salter. “This innovation will allow the creation of printed electronics, embedded sensors, mass customisation, consumer electronics, medical devices, miniaturisation and zero tooling manufacture, while also protecting the security of the manufacturing data being used.

“The main hurdle facing materials development and new manufacturing processes such as digital fabrication is industrial inertia. There are already a lot of things made very cost effectively using existing processes and there is a cost of changing these processes. Therefore, I believe the revolution will only really start to take pace when it is able to be adopted to do things that can’t already be done today.

“For example, printing electronics, in particular consumer electronics, which is a huge and fast-moving market presents a massive opportunity. New materials like graphene will also find their place in AM and 3D printing. We also expect the medical sector to make huge advancements in 3D bio-printing. In addition, we are likely to see greater exploitation of tailor-made implants, on demand to actual patient needs, perhaps even in theatre. This will have the benefit of reducing operative timescales and improving patient outcomes.

“By itself, 3D printing doesn’t yet solve enough problems when applied to current manufacturing challenges. Real advancement will only come when customised products can be made more quickly, cheaply and efficiently. This will only occur when we see a genuine convergence between a host of technologies such as inkjet printing, AM and 3D printing. Only when these processes work in combination, will digital fabrication realise its full potential.”

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